In most of the world, it’s the sign for peace, but here in Argentina it means war. The index and middle finger, held to form a V, means to his followers, Menem vuelve, Menem will return. Carlos Menem, poster boy of Latin American neoliberalism, president for almost all of the 1990s, is looking to get his old job back on May 18.
Menem’s campaign ads show menacing pictures of unemployed workers blockading roads, with a voiceover promising to bring order, even if it means calling in the military. This strategy gave him a slim lead in the first election round, though he will almost certainly lose the runoff to an obscure Peronist governor, Nestor Kirchner, considered the puppet of current president (and Menem’s former vice president) Eduardo Duhalde.
On December 19 and 20, 2001, when Argentines poured into the streets banging pots and pans and telling their politicians, que se vayan todos, everyone must go, few would have predicted the current elections would come down to this: a choice between two symbols of the regime that bankrupted the country. Back then, Argentines could have been forgiven for believing that they were starting a democratic revolution, one that forced out President Fernando de la Rua and churned through three more presidents in twelve days.
The target of these mass demonstrations was the corruption of democracy itself, a system that had turned voting into a hollow ritual while the real power was outsourced to the International Monetary Fund, French water companies and Spanish telecoms–with local politicians taking their cut. Carlos Menem, though he had been out of office for two years, was the uprising’s chief villain. Elected in 1989 on a populist platform, Menem did an about-face and gutted public spending, sold off the state and sent hundreds of thousands into unemployment.
When Argentines rejected those policies, it was hugely significant for the globalization movement. The events of December 2001 were seen in international activist circles as the first national revolt against neoliberalism, and “You are Enron, We are Argentina” was soon adopted as a chant outside trade summits.
Perhaps more important, the country seemed on the verge of answering the most persistent question posed to critics of both “free trade” and feeble representative democracies: “What is your alternative?” With all their institutions in crisis, hundreds of thousands of Argentines went back to democracy’s first principles: Neighbors met on street corners and formed hundreds of popular assemblies. They created trading clubs, health clinics and community kitchens. Close to 200 abandoned factories were taken over by their workers and run as democratic cooperatives. Everywhere you looked, people were voting.